They were all Australians...

Frank Lowy


Australian multiculturalism is bigger and stronger than what happened in Sydney at the weekend. When people come together from so many cultures, it is inevitable there will be some discord.

In Australia, we have had this in the past and we will have this in the future. What happened at the weekend was brought about by a complex combination of factors which all countries must now deal with, not just Australia.

These include a more globalised world. The use of the internet and social media, in this case to issue an international rallying call. And the manipulation of sensitive issues by people who set out to provoke.

While the protest was made possible because we have a multicultural society, this eruption did not devalue the powerful dynamic of multiculturalism which has been developing here for more than 60 years.

It did, however, remind us that multiculturalism is a work in progress and needs constant attention to meet contemporary challenges.

The internet and social media can and will be used for sinister purposes. Isolated incidents in far-away places can now quickly become international events. The forces of globalisation are unstoppable. But we can and should find ways to modify the way these forces impact upon us.

Our reaction, as a nation, to the weekend’s events made a good start.

Consider what happened:

The police were there to monitor a peaceful protest, but met violence with resolve. Our political leaders were united in their condemnation of the violence. They made it clear that while Australia was a tolerant society, there would be zero-tolerance towards that kind of behaviour. The leadership of the Muslim community, and the vast majority of Muslims in Australia, were clearly dismayed at what had occurred and also condemned the violence.

And the Australian community as a whole reacted with such revulsion that the perpetrators can be left in no doubt that there is no place for this kind of behaviour here, and never will be. Far from being an assault on multiculturalism, last weekend can be a sign of the strength and maturity of our multicultural society.

Multiculturalism is precious to Australia, but there are ways we can improve it. Before we talk about this, let’s understand what constitutes multiculturalism. I believe its richness comes through individual experience. Everyone who comes to our shores is shaped by the experiences that preceded their arrive. How they interact when they get here shapes them further and, in turn, reshapes our country. This happens over and over again, millions of times, and slowly builds our rich multicultural society.

Australia is the most multicultural nation in the developed world, and we are familiar with the statistics. 27% of the population was born overseas. Nearly 50% of the total population are either first or second generation migrants.

‘Australia is the most multicultural nation in the developed world’

This works in our national interest in all sorts of ways. Not least is the way it connects us to the rest of the world. This is a huge resource for Australia, as we are a relatively small nation in an increasingly globalised world.

Can you imagine a modern Australia made up entirely of Anglo-Celtic stock? We would be a warmer and somewhat larger version of the Falkland Islands – a kind of British colonial left-over not in the South Atlantic, but the South Pacific.

Instead, we have here hundreds of communities, all connected with their mother countries but all contributing to the welfare of Australia. This is the diaspora effect in reverse.

The contribution of multiculturalism to our wider national life is well understood and I don’t need to revisit that here. The evidence of that contribution – in sport, the arts, in science and medicine, in business – is there for all to see. Inevitably, any discussion of our multicultural society gets entangled with immigration policy which is a related but separate issue.

And most of the entanglement happens around illegal arrivals – the so-called ‘boat people.’ I don’t want to stumble into a discussion about this tonight, even though I was a boat person myself – in a different era and in a different place.

While I confess to being sentimental about my personal experience of coming to Australia, I have seen enough of life to know that the mass movement and resettlement of people can be a difficult business.

Individuals can take decades to feel at home in a new country. Some never feel at home. Some communities with a culture and experience vastly different to our own struggle with questions of identity and belonging. And while my personal experience was positive, it was not the same for everyone. It was not the same for all immigrants, and it wasn’t always a positive experience for those Australians who were already here.

This is why we should resist the temptation to view Australia’s multicultural experience through rose-coloured glasses. And it is why I think it’s time to move the discussion about multiculturalism to a new phase, beyond the recognition that it makes for a more vibrant community, or that we now have a wider choice of restaurants.

I think there are deeper questions worthy of our consideration, especially in light of recent events.

One such question involves the concept of citizenship. A survey carried out several years ago found then, and I expect would find today, widespread ignorance and misconception about Australia’s system of government and the ways in which it can serve the needs of its citizens.

When asked what makes a good citizen, most respondents suggested the chief attribute is obeying laws, which of course is essential. A minority mentioned care and consideration for others, or involvement in civic affairs. Many were engaged in a wide range of voluntary activities yet did not perceive this to be an attribute of citizenship. Only a third claimed at least a moderate knowledge of the rights and responsibilities of citizenship.

Scenes from the riots last weekend

And these were not just newly arrived immigrants. They were all Australians.

When I speak about what it means to be an Australian citizen I am not referring to a checklist of Australian historical and cultural reference points. It might be handy for a newcomer to know that Don Bradman was our greatest cricketer. Or that we like the beach, the barbeque, and the long weekend. Far more useful though would be a bedrock understanding of what it means to be a citizen.

Central to this would be an acceptance of the fundamental tenet of citizenship – that with privileges and rights come obligations. An obligation to learn about our system of government. Our respect for rule of law. To actively participate in our civic institutions.

I am not promoting this approach out of lofty or idealistic motives. I am merely being pragmatic. Newcomers should know that our liberal democracy provides impartial processes to air grievances and right wrongs. They should know that there is a place for peaceful and lawful protest.

Australians generally are pragmatic about this too. They say to newcomers: you are welcome; you are free to worship; you are free to honour your heritage; and, we will respect the differences between us. And in return, you should agree to live by the standards and values of this society, the one you have chosen to be a part of. And agree to conscientiously pass on these values to your children. To ensure that they receive a broad and balanced education, untainted by the ideology of hate.

This has been the great unwritten deal between Australians and newcomers to this country for the past 60 years.

It is because the vast majority of newcomers have honoured this deal that we can say with conviction that multiculturalism has been a triumph of tolerance.

Of course, we should not assume that past success guarantees success in the future. We will be faced with new challenges, and last weekend’s violence is just one of a continuation of challenges we have faced over the past 60 years or so.

We will be called upon to demonstrate patience, and to show by example what we mean when we talk about Australian values. We should take positive steps, like some of those I’ve suggested tonight, to do everything possible to help new communities become familiar with Australian values and our way of life.

We should do this because we know that multiculturalism has made Australia a stronger and better nation.

And all our lives are richer for it.

This is an amended version of the speech Frank Lowy gave to the Australian Multicultural Council on the 19th September, 2012.

 Frank Lowy, AC is an Australian-Israeli businessman and the co-founder of the Westfield group.

Have the events in Sydney last weekend changed your views on multiculturalism?